I’ve been talking with various clients recently about how what they might find value in creating a Digital Transformation strategy.  Mostly its about the thinking process, rather than having a masochistic desire to write board papers.  But its also about recognising that board approved strategy papers are the currency of (big) decision-making in most HAs, so if you’re looking for board buy-in, you’d better get drafting!

Having gotten your thinking together in a draft document for discussion, and finally gained approval for it, it’s useful to have it all written up in one place.  That way you can share the vision, ambition & planned approach with everyone.

Having said similar things various different people, I figured I’d write it up and publish it here, in case it’s useful for you.  Feel free to get in touch if you need some help in working up your organisation’s strategy – there’s no one-size fits all.

 

I use Evernote to keep track on interesting things I stumble across on the tinterwebs. That could be anything from living in the mountains to digital & housing. I figured it was about time to start sharing some of them more widely, so every month or so, I’ll do a post with links of stuff that might be relevant or interesting for those working in housing. And maybe some random stuff thrown in for good measure too 🙂

Thinking about organisational design:

Type-2 organisations.  A post about organisations, decision-making, and getting fit for purpose in the networked age.

A Harvard Business Review long-form piece about Agile (that’s with a capital ‘A’, not just being generally flexible and fast) beyond software development, but as an organisation.  Its a world of difference from the old command and control stuff.

The video of a presentation at #Sprint16 (A government digital conference) on the challenges of ‘doing Agile’ in a generally non-Agile environment.  If we folks who work in housing think its hard, imagine the challenges in the civil service. Take heart that we’re not alone, and that there are some useful techniques and approaches that might be helpful.

Thinking about designing services:

Designing for data. A great post from @Sarahgold on some key principles to consider when designing services.

Eight recommendations for how the public sector should be using service design. I particularly like number one – make it ‘how we do things around here’.

Seeing new things happen in real life:

SomersTown soup. A lovely example of what happens when a Housing Association, some service designers and some local folks get together and make stuff happen. H/T to my old (young) mucker @jonfoster for being a great catalyst to make things happen

Over the last year or so, I’ve had quite a few conversations with folks in lots of different organisations about how best to structure a team to deliver digital transformation.  It sounds like lots of people are working hard on pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, but a coherent approach has yet to fully emerge.  Variations ranged from looking to the Communications Teams to build a better website (under-estimating the underlying integration needed to deliver seamless services), through to looking to IT Teams to deliver technology with a much wider reach than they’re used to.  Matt Leach and I have had many conversations about this (and I still owe him a long-form essay about the wider digital leadership landscape), but for now at least, here are some forming thoughts about one segment of that wider landscape – how we might best structure our teams to deliver digital transformation

Things I’m learning…


So I’ve been France for about a month or so, and it’s been (and continues to be) an education.  I didn’t imagine that life in an alpine village would bring much insight into for my professional life in social housing, but it’s doing just that.  In spades.  But here’s just one aspect for now.

Design. Or poor design more like, can really influence how a citizen experiences a service, and how they feel about a place.  I have passable French language skills – enough for me to have a chat to people, and use most French websites.  I’ve even started using the phone a bit, but that is harder, as you don’t have the benefit of hand signals, mime or sketching.

Last week in IKEA, I was totally befuddled by the ordering/paying/collecting process.  I ordered & paid for some items that needed to be retrieved from a staff-only stock area.  I was handed a receipt and pointed in the direction of customer services to collect it.  On approaching customer services, there’s a nice big “take a ticket” sign & dispenser, and over the top of each customer service desk an electronic display with number of the ticket for service.  I take a ticket, I wait on the comfy chairs, use the free wifi, and after a few minutes, get to the desk.  Ah, says the woman at the counter, you don’t need a ticket just to collect something, your go over there…. Pointing to the left.  To the left, was another set of screens, which showed which items (& reference numbers, matching those on my receipt) had been retrieved.  Once I understood what I had to do, it worked a dream.  When I took a closer look at my IKEA receipt – it did even say “you don’t need to take a customer service ticket, just go straight to the collection point”.  But of course, I didn’t read that bit fully, I did the Pavlovian thing of taking a ticket.  Clearly it’s an experience IKEA know about, as they print it on every collection receipt.  But I can’t help thinking it would be easier to re-site the signage so customers could see easily, the two different services.

Not being a native French speaker makes lots of simple things a bit harder.  And I’m beginning to experience what lots of our Housing Association customers who don’t have good English experience.  Simple day to day transactions take longer, and are laden with a degree of anxiety that I’ll get something wrong and look an idiot. Or worse, make an expensive mistake.  Now I don’t have a regular salary like I used to, I’m much more conscious about outgoings.  Every time an official looking letter arrives, I can feel pangs of anxiety lest I’ve messed something up.  I can only imagine how some of the sectors official notices are recieved – especially the ones with legal jargon.

I’m not suggesting we should translate everything for customers.  It’s certainly improving my French by having to use it day to day.  But I think we should be looking at our service design through many different lenses – and one of those is “how does this work for someone with limited English”.  If we can make things more intuitive, more visual, less reliant on reading detailed written material, we’re actually making it easier for everyone.

But on to today’s challenge.  I have a Carrefour supermarket loyalty card, and I have a voucher to get €4 off my shopping. I present the voucher and the card at the checkout.  No money is knocked off my shopping bill, but another voucher with a security PIN in given to me, and apparently i need to do something at the customer services counter.  I wonder if I’ll need to take a ticket…

hippo

The Hippo. Dangerous in more ways than one…

The folks at Inside Housing asked me to write a piece for them, which was published last week here: – its behind their paywall, so am just re-posting here for posterity, and those folks who aren’t full time housing nerds with IH subscriptions!

I’m loving IH’s Innovation Index project – it’s a really interesting little tool that gives you a snapshot of how well your organisation’s culture supports innovation. In only took me a few minutes to do, but it’s kept me thinking for a good few days – but then it is one of my favourite subjects.

It’s so important for us as housing associations to keep innovating if we’re to survive and thrive. The sector has a great heritage of innovation: both in the business model – the most successful and long-lasting public-private partnership for the delivery of new homes; and in the product itself – like the introduction of shared ownership back in the 70s. And we’re still doing it today, with organisations leveraging their expertise as a landlord and extending operations into the private rented sector, and delivering more customer services online.

Recent corporate history is littered with organisations who either stopped innovating, or lost their way with leveraging that innovation. Kodak was an early digital photography pioneer (the company invented it in 1975), but didn’t grasp how it would change how we took, shared and kept our images. Blockbuster held onto its shops for too long and got trounced by Netflix and Lovefilm. And Woolworths, dear old Woolies, just lost its focus on customer needs.

So assuming no one thinks innovation is a bad thing, or an irrelevant thing, the more challenging question is how best to enable it to happen? I don’t think there’s a single ‘right’ answer to that, but I’m pretty sure there are some common ingredients, which can come together for the magic to happen. And for me, that’s more often about culture, than it is structure or process.

I try to keep an eye on what problem we’re trying to solve – and I’m often asking myself and colleagues: what problem are we trying to solve here, and is that the right problem to tackle? Could a re-framing of the problem, through the customer’s lens, make a difference? For example, we want to get customers to report repairs online. The customer wants to get the repair done right first time, at a time of their choosing. How can we bring those two together, so the customer gets to book their own repair slot online? Placing the user’s need at the centre of our thinking helps us innovate in service delivery. Netflix recognised that people wanted movies conveniently. Blockbuster assumed they’d carry on walking to the store.

Ideas are fledgling, delicate things, easily killed off by cynicism that something will never work. Sure, there are lots of ideas that won’t fly, but if a colleague’s idea is lightly dismissed as bad, chances are they’re not going to share their next one, which might be good. When we’re sharing ideas, we can set up innovation-friendly conversations by asking, ‘How could we make this concept better,’ or ‘What are the problems that mean this won’t flly?’. ‘Yes, and’ trumps ‘Yes, but’.

Don’t follow the HiPPO. That’s the ‘highest paid person’s opinion’. I’m sure the boss has some great ideas (mine certainly does), but I’m also sure they don’t have a monopoly on them, or on spotting innovation when they see it. When a group of people is in a room talking and thinking about new stuff, it’s all too easy to take the lead from the most senior person in the room. The best senior folks I’ve worked with are aware of this, and deliberately frame the conversations so they don’t ‘go first’ and have everyone agree with them. Diversity of perspective on an idea is a good thing – cherish it. Be that slightly difficult person who says, ‘Hold on a moment, I think I see that differently’ – that’s where the magic starts to happen.

We also need to beware our own comfort zones. To a man (or woman) with a hammer, everything looks like nail. Apple used to just produce great technology kit. Now it runs a massively successful retail operation. If we only look to innovation in running our organisations more efficiently, we may well be missing a more creative approach to tackling Britain’s housing crisis.

 

As some of you may know, I’ve long harboured plans to live differently: life is too short to have just the one career. Back in 2007 we bought some land in a French mountain village, with a view to building a chalet, and running a ski-business. After various stops and starts, it’s nearly there. So in December, I’m finishing up my regular full time job at Thames Valley Housing, and heading to France for the winter season.

After that, I’ll split my time between France and the UK, and am looking to take on a small number of digital strategy projects each year:

  • Digital Transformation strategic advice: a stocktake on where organisations are, some ideas about where they might want to be, and a roadmap of options for getting there.
  • Digital Transformation workshops for boards and senior teams.
  • Practical “how to commission great web stuff’ help. Particularly for organisations who’re finding that there’s more to commissioning online digital services than simply building a website.
  • Digital & communication skills frameworks for the connected age.

I’ll still be doing some work with TVH, but there’s room for maybe two or three more assignments.  So if your organisation needs help with any this sort of thing, do get in touch.

Outside of the ski season, we’ll be hosting team away-events in the mountains. A beautiful place to do the ‘step back and think’ type sessions we all know we need but rarely get round to. Instead of soul-less hotel conference venue, outdoors activities in the mountains and post-it note fuelled, facilitated sessions in the chalet. With the most exceptional coffee you can imagine. Get in touch for those too.

Its time for an exciting new adventure.  Lets see how well these two mix…

snowy mountainIMG_9084

westwingA bit off topic, but I’ve been binge-watching the West Wing recently.  Right back from season one, and I’m nearly through season six.  I shall be in mourning when I play the last episode of season seven.  The writing is tight, clever and pacey.  The walking/talking meetings are exhausting just to watch.  The characters are as strong as their bonds.  My good chum JohnPollock rightly calls it Shakespeare for the television age. Over the years I’ve attended various Shakespeare inspired leadership/management development programmes.  I reckon there’s a rich meme of West Wing inspired L&D interventions waiting in the wings.     So I figured I’d do a few short posts about them.  Today, it’s gender equality lessons from WW.

I love the show has awesome female characters, and features entirely recognisable storylines of the challenges they face.

CJ Cregg is the White House Press Secretary.  That’s running the press core, not making the tea. She stands on the podium day after day, briefing the press and fielding quick fire questions. Fast, sassy, the master of the soundbite.  Always thinking about a story is going to run in the press.  Who will kill it, support it, what the opposition could make out of it.  Overwhelmingly a voice, (ahead of the social media Internet era) saying “I have to tell the truth or they [the press core] won’t trust me”.  Not a bad principle to live by.  And not since  Star Trek can I think of a better female character and role model in a TV show.  There are a few moments that dwell on her gender, but the character largely just gets on with her job – brilliantly.  She gets promoted to Chief of Staff.  Because she’s good.

And you gotta love Donna Moss.  On the surface she’s the ditzy side-kick to the Deputy Chief of Staff.  But you soon know she’s no ditz.  Eventually she realises that if she’s going to further her career, she need to step out of the “helping the boss role” and into something more.  She works out that no-one is gonna do it for her and she’s gotta do it for herself. Go Donna.  Taking control of your career and stopping doing “helping roles” is just fine.

What’s this got to do with housing?  There are talented women all around us.  Let’s check in that we’re not trapping a Donna in a role where their “helping” makes our lives easier.  And let’s all channel a spot of CJ Cregg.  She rocks.

 

We’re coming to the end of our organisation’s current ICT strategy cycle. Back in 2012, I wrote it as a three year strategy and looking back at the plan, I’m really proud of what colleagues have delivered – we’ve completed most of the projects on the plan.  Others we set aside, as not longer relevant, and a couple of new ones have taken their place.  Overall, we’re pretty much where we planned to be at this stage.  This closing 2012-15 cycle had a combination of a couple of new strategic initiatives (online customer services and the start of a migration to cloud-based services), some big, but routine, tactical projects (significant version upgrades to core systems: housing management and telephony), and a head office move thrown in for good measure.   To channel Henry Ford for a moment, I’d characterise it as (much) faster horses plus a couple of go-karts.  Our online services in MyTVH is certainly a go kart.

Henry Ford

But I’m now thinking about cars.  

I want to widen out the ambition, so we meet a wider range of user needs online.  I want to create great tools that staff love using.  And I want to really leverage our data for insights to improve customer service and efficiency.

This time, I think an (even) more visionary, strategic approach is needed.  An ICT strategy that delivers the same old things, just faster or marginally better, just won’t be delivering the step change needed.  If HAs are to be modern well run businesses as we head towards 2020, we really need to focus on meeting the user needs.  How many IT Directors or Housing Directors really feel their organisations IT meets user needs?  And really sort out out approach to data.  Our sector has shed loads of it. And too much of it is trapped in systems without APIs, spreadsheets or worse still, in PDF documents.    

In pulling our IT strategy together, we’re drawing on a framework for thinking about it called “Value Chain Mapping“.  I’ve deliberately looked outside the sector to get some new approaches and ideas into play.  Value Chain Mapping starts with thinking about what the *headline* user needs are, and then looks at the components needed to meet those needs.  Simon Wardley’s blog is a brilliant set of resources for deploying this approach.  Highly recommended.
It’s proving to be an interesting exercise (we’re not finished yet).  The real benefit would come if lots of other HAs did a similar exercise and we shared our results.  I can’t see any security or commercially sensitive problems with doing so – this is simply a framework for thinking about things.  If folks felt commercial sensitivity was a problem, I’m sure I could work out a way of doing it anonymously.  Is anyone interested?

I’ve had this post brewing for a while, but there has never seemed a good time to post it.  It could look churlish if we’ve not won something, or ungrateful if we have.  But we’ve not got any submissions in at the moment, so I’m putting my head over the parapet.

(I should be clear at the outset, these are *my* views, not the considered position of my employer.  But that’s OK, I’m over needing to ‘fit in’ all the time!).

I feel like a heretic, but I loathe “industry awards”.  Over the last couple of years I’ve started to talk about it a bit, and have found a few kindred spirits.  But now I’m having a public chat about it, so let’s see if there’s any more!

Over the years, I’ve written a fair few award submissions, attended a fair few swanky award dinners, won a few and even judged a few.  But my heart has never really been in it.

Initially, I just thought it was my inner anarchist making itself known.  But I’ve been reflecting on what’s underlying the sentiment.  I think it’s because I see glitzy awards as actually *damaging* our brand and reputation with customers.  Counter-intuitive huh.

Whenever I see proclamations about an organisation being “award winning”, I wince.  I wonder whether day to day customer service or product quality really is like – and whether it lives up to the award submission.  I’m not really trusting that the judgment process marries up with real life experience.  I’m sure we’ve all seen some where we know there’s a bloomin’ enormous reality gap.  Every time an organisation over claims how good it is, another piece of trust with the customer dies.

My cynicism about the judging process comes from direct experience – on both sides of the fence.  Over the years I’ve written award submissions that only select the best aspects of the project, and was silent about anything that wasn’t great.  You don’t win (conventional awards) by saying what’s not worked.  And I’ve seen busy lauded industry-experts toss their judging packs to their PA to do because they haven’t the time (I’ll not be drawn on who though).

One day, when I’ve time on my hands, I fancy doing a little data mashup of published KPI stats and number of awards won, and see if there’s any correlation or not.  My hypothesis, is that the propensity to win awards is more strongly correlated with the Comms team’s efforts (or the spend with professional submission writers), than it is quality of service.

Awards are lead generation for the events industry.  Does anyone ever *not* get shortlisted?  Of course not, the organisers have got to sell those tables at the swanky ceremony.  It’s all about sales.  Tell me, has anyone ever won despite not attending the ceremony??

The counter-argument comes back that it’s good to recognise the achievements of staff who work hard on projects.  Please don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of celebrating successes. I’m just not convinced that gala-dinners, perspex plaques and paid-for “congratulations” advertising pages in the trade-press are really the thing.  It’s just a bit, well, hollow.  And as for the ‘digital litter’ that is an array of logos on the bottom of the website… I reserve a special level of grump when they turn up on email footers.  Last year I stumbled upon an email footer with no less than NINE award logos.  Really? Thou protesteth too much.

The awards that I’m interested in, don’t come with any of those trappings.  I’d be really interested in awards decided by crowdsourced feedback from customers – the people who really experience our services.  Or feedback from staff – real people delivering the service day to day.   Show me your customer testimonials on Google and I might be a bit more impressed.  Someday soon, someone will do a “trip advisor” for housing… That’s the kind of award I’d be more interested in winning.

Or on a different tack, how about some “real learning” awards.  Awards for sharing the best mistakes, lessons learned and shared.  I’m sure we learn as much from from ‘Worst Practice’ as ‘Best Practice’.  The #MyWorstPractice Confessional at last year’s #HouseParty indicated there’s masses we can learn from stuff that goes wrong.  So instead of burying it, let’s own it, share it and save others falling down the same bear traps.  Maybe I’ll get round to building the confessionals website for this year’s session!

 

So I’m doing some work on an ICT strategy at the moment and I’ve been thinking about costs.  And value delivered.

 
We’ve got cost data coming out of ears in the social housing sector, but precious little about value.
 
For our own organisation, I’ve pulled all the detailed transaction data for the last three years.  Go on, ask me how we spend on mobiles calls and data. It’s in the monster spreadsheet (Top tip, check out the public sector framework agreement rates – and save yourself a whole mountain of time & procurement service fees.  They’re good).  
 
There’s also a mountain of benchmarking data knocking around.  Courtesy of our participation in the HouseMark benchmarking club (and a cursory review of some VFM statements indicates many of us do), I also know how our organisation compares to other similar-sized HAs.  There are graphs.  Many graphs.  Total cost, spend per unit, spend per staff FTE….
 
But it all feels a bit TBI.  True But Irrelevant.
 
If you’re trying to innovate, comparing your costs to the rest of the pack isn’t adding much useful insight.  
 
I’m *really* interested in our total cost to serve being good in comparison to our peers.  But much less so in the component parts of how that’s broken down.
 
What I’d really love to get to grips with, is what proportion of turnover (or total cost) do other industries spend on their tech.  Especially industries that are delivery a service to the public, with an element of unavoidable face-to-face contact and for customers with limited incomes and limited choices.  That would be interesting.
 
And I’d love some insight on how to truly measure “value” when it comes to technology spending.  I can come up with narrative, but I’d like a simple set of measures I could run over time.  
 
Are any other HA tech folk thinking about this too?